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The Iron Kingdom

Interview by Jefferson Chase December 19, 2007

Christopher Clark's "The Iron Kingdom" is a 750+ page opus about a state that no longer exists. But, that didn't stop the German translation from cracking the 2007 bestseller lists. He talked about Prussia's appeal.

Statue of Friedrich II
Friedrich the Great (1712-1786) was both an art lover and a successful military commanderImage: AP

DW-WORLD.DE: Are you surprised that an academic book on Prussia could make the German bestseller lists?

Christopher Clark: I certainly didn't expect success on that level. I think it's a case of timing. The fall of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification have triggered a process of re-imagining the German past in general and Prussia in particular. So much of what was left of the old Prussian state was in former Communist East Germany, so it was kind of locked away. With the re-unification of Germany, it all became visible and got reconnected to the larger German national entity. That and the opening up of archives of the former East Germany prompted a rethink.

Let's try to sum up your thesis. Prussia was a relatively enlightened, progressive state that inadvertently destroyed itself when it enlisted the force of German nationalism. Is that close?

Schinkel building
Prussian culture, including architecture, blossomed in the 19th centuryImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

That's exactly it. Nationalism was Prussia's downfall. In older historical literature, nationalism was seen as the culmination of Prussian history. Prussia's task in history had been to create the German nation. Just as we today tend to see the rise of the Third Reich in 1933 as the end of an era and explain how Germany got to that point, previous generations tried to explain how German history had got to 1871 and the creation of the German Empire. And the answer was that Prussia was the steering, shaping and sometimes manipulative power that would bring the German nation into existence. The emergence of the German nation is the thing that gives meaning to the whole history of Prussia.

That, in my view, is completely and utterly wrong. Throughout its history Prussia had been the most un-national state you can imagine, partly because it contained such large numbers of non-Germans, but also because the whole idea of its existence was that of the sovereign, monarchical state, interwoven with the idea of the sovereignty of law.

These were ideas that had nothing to do with the uprising of a national movement. Prussia responded very hostilely to early German nationalism because the Hohenzollern rulers rightly recognized that it would act like a kind of corrosive acid eating away at everything the Prussian state stood for.

It was only during the unstable period of the 1850s, 60s and 70s that Prussian statesmen, particularly Prussian Prime Minister and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, began to imagine that they could tame nationalism. But that was something they failed to do.

You mention Bismarck. He plays less of a role in your book than in most works of Prussian history. Why is that?

The Hohenzollern kings ruled first Prussia, then Germany from 1701 to 1918Image: Burgverwaltung Hohenzollern

In some ways I think Bismarck turned his back on Prussia. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia said in 1848: "Prussia will be henceforth merged into Germany." And I think he got it right that the process of national consolidation that Bismarck saw as a continuation of Prussian security policy would ultimately not Prussianize Germany, but Germanize Prussia, and that everything the old Prussia stood for would be lost. So in some ways I see Bismarck as the first executor of a kind of closing-down sale of Prussia and Prussian tradition.

Historian Christopher Clark
Historian Christopher Clark says Prussia was never the bad guy of EuropeImage: Clark

But wasn't nationalism something inevitable that was going to happen sooner or later? Or can one imagine a scenario in which Prussia would still exist today?

That's a really good question and a difficult one to answer. Although historians usually rear up in horror at the notion, I think it was probably inevitable. If you think about the other multi-national states that existed in the 19th century, Russia, for example, or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both of them disappeared in the course of the World War I and were replaced by something radically different. It seems to me that these pre-national, multi-ethnic commonwealths that were such a feature of Europe in the early modern period were probably doomed to go under.

Let's backtrack now and talk about the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries and Prussia under Friedrich the Great. You describe especially the Prussian capital Berlin as a vibrant, even libidinous place during his reign. Would you have liked to live there?

I think there would have been wonderful things about being in Berlin in the 1780s and 90s. Berlin, if you compare it with London or Paris, has the reputation of being boring. But, that doesn't mean Berlin was dead or lacked an urbane identity. And this identity was not driven by the projection of power through the dynasty and its monumental public buildings. The new culture that emerged was driven by voluntary impulses from civil society. There was a proliferation of clubs and organizations for all sorts of purposes -- cultivating the sciences, for instance, or looking at economical ways of using fuel. There were literary societies and freemason lodges. It was an endless cornucopia of little voluntary initiatives. The point I was trying to make is that this created a city that wasn't just about courts or courtliness but about courtesy and civility of a very middle-class, bourgeois kind.

Kaiser and generals
The arrogance of Emperor Wilhelm II and his generals led to defeat in World War IImage: picture-alliance/akg

Many historians draw links between Prussia and Nazism. Although no one would claim Prussia was the cradle of the ideology, some people see connections between Prussian militarism and subservience and the Third Reich. But, you portray Prussia more as a source of opposition.

If it were true that Prussia created an environment that deadened the will of ordinary citizens and turned them into instruments of state power, thereby blazing a trail for a totalitarian dictatorship in which people would do anything they were told, it would be very easy to test that hypothesis. All you'd have to show is that Germans of Prussian provenance made better and more obedient Nazis than people from Austria, Baden-Württemberg and so on. If that had been the case, it would be more than obvious. But it isn't. There is simply no evidence. On the contrary, people from Baden-Württemberg and especially Austria made for equally keen Nazis, with Austrians, for example, being hugely overrepresented in the machinery of Nazi genocide. It's just simply not the case that you can map out a relationship between Prussia and Nazism that made people into better tools of the regime.

Campaign poster featuring Hindenburg and Hitler
German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933Image: DHM

Of course, Prussia is implicated in the story of the events that brought Hitler to power. The old Prussian elites played a key role in cooking up the plan to put Hitler into power as German Chancellor in 1933. Not because they wanted the Third Reich, but because they thought they could use Hitler in a kind of conservative coup against the Weimar Republic. Of course, they were disastrously wrong. The corporate arrogance of the Prussian nobility helps to explain why some perfectly intelligent people failed to recognize the danger Hitler presented.

But National Socialism was in many respects the exact opposite pole of Prussiandom. The old Prussian state had been about the authority of government and the rule of law, but the new Nazi Reich was about the people. It was an ethnic entity. The Nazis didn't care about laws. To them, laws were utterly secondary. What mattered was the Führer as the expression of the will of the Volk. This was an idea that had no precedent in Prussian history whatsoever. So I see a very strong antipathy between the two forms of state.

Christopher Clark is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge.